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How Skype Can Quickly and Easily Become a Social Network (and Clean Facebook's Clock)

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skype_logoAs a longtime Skype user who never felt that the service fit with eBay, I was thrilled to hear that it’s being spun off. And now I have some thoughts on how it can quickly and easily become an equally successful social network. [digg=]

In some respects, Skype already is the world’s largest social network, with hundreds of millions of users. And as a peer-to-peer system that generates revenue primarily through outbound phone minutes, Skype doesn’t need to sell advertising, which means that it doesn’t need to infringe on users’ privacy by turning their personal information into a salable commodity for advertisers — in my mind the fundamental flaw of web-based social networks. In other words, Skype has in place a well-established foundation for a social networking system based on privacy and trust. So what might a social Skype look like?

Skype already has a great client for real-time communication: a social graph of people its users know and call. It’s available for every major platform, and given Skype’s popularity, there are a large number of people online at any one time. Each Skype client could serve a XML file with the user’s current status, media files, link feeds and so forth, and to obtain a real-time view of what’s happening with other users, it could call around to folks in a user’s Skype list to get the latest updates. Such a system could be highly decentralized, with most content served directly from one user to another, and largely self-hosted, which means the infrastructure costs would be much lower than a centrally run web service.

The user experience would be effortless. Users would simply see more social features appear in upgrades to the Skype client, with, for example, Twitter-like functionality to broadcast to friends and followers in one panel, a link/news-sharing interface in another. By moving this functionality into the client, apart from a caching mechanism to temporarily store content for users while they’re offline, the need for a centralized web-based infrastructure is greatly reduced.

Apart from poking Facebook in the eye, why should Skype become a social network? Because it would drive phone minutes and SMS messages between friends, which drives revenues — which makes it a smart business decision. Besides, I’ve never bought the idea that a dominant position in a market guarantees long-term success. Skype took out a whole slew of early VoIP networks to become the world’s phone company — it could quickly and easily become the world’s social network, too.

36 Responses to “How Skype Can Quickly and Easily Become a Social Network (and Clean Facebook's Clock)”

  1. This ‘running skype client in a browser’ thing is interesting. We do it (see for an example) and it works nicely in certain circumstances. It fails however in others.

    For it to work (socially) you need both ends on-line at the same time.

    Social web pages are not ‘always on’, they are ‘casual visit’ sites. Even the most Facebook obsessed are only on for, say 2 out of 24 hours – so they would only be reachable 10% of the time. Forgive my maths, but I think that means the chances of 2 people being reachable at the same time is 1% .

    There are ways out of this problem:
    1) the callee is _always_ available – classic skype users, or company PBX’s connected via Skype for Asterisk/SIP
    2) leveraging presence (eg the way facebook chat works) by limiting who you can talk to
    3) having an always-on fall-back for the called party (e.g. cell-phone) – If your callee isn’t on-line then skype calls their cell instead (and someone pays !)

    Probably the most exciting option is what we have been working on with the guys from, where you remove the need for people to be there at the same time – kinda ‘asynchronous telephony’ – which is hinted at in the demo above, but we are working to develop further.
    (Here’s a taster…. )

  2. @TJ I agree. The key idea in a system like this is that the clients would exchange XML files that can represent many types of information, some which might be authored within the Skype client (a status update for example), some of which might be coming from other apps, like Picassa for example. With a very simple interface for passing XML blobs in and out of Skype, you could make this a very open system where the Skype client only understands a small set of what its passing around to its peers. Skype’s role, more than anything, is to figure out who to share information with and to exchange files, something it already does very well.

    I generally agree that competing for the sake of competing is not usually productive. Were they to do something like this, it would be something new, especially if there is a conduit for third party developers to use.

  3. chris morrish

    If skype integrated with Facebook connect (like this website) it would be even easier than decentralizing the cloud. Think about it, skype app in facebook for those off computer moments when you don’t want to install a new instance of a client, and facebook directory integration into the skype client for populating and managing a list of all your friends.
    Having Skype host a social network would be like asking the phone company to run digg, this would never work. But keeping each service working at what they do best will improve the environment instead of creating conflict.

  4. I love Skype, it’s my team’s “office.” But I empathize with the detractors to this article who don’t want Skype to merely compete with Facebook. That’s not the way to success; the way to success is to create a new market, and I think the key in this respect comes in the opening of Skype’s API. Let developers take Skype to the next level, not Skype itself.

    Don’t worry about exposing the secret sauce–keep that secret, but let me do more with you in my applications and grand ideas and business models.

  5. We’ve been approaching social networks telling them how they can clean Facebook’s clock simply by moving onto the Email platform by putting photo profiles into the Email header pane and letting, for instance, the Outlook inbox transform itself temporarily into a browser within the program itself. Our technology can put any VOIP network or social network into the Email header panes of Outlook, YahooMail, Gmail and Live. xobni is also doing this using a frame that overlays the Outlook interface and they are using a middle-man business model where they charge $30 per corporate user per year (our business model is to let our OEM customers bill the corporate users). Both SenderOK and xobni are paving the way for social network activity to occur primarily within the Email client and not on the web.

    Having said that, Facebook is only #1 because its competitors have been sleeping. I’ve been trying to find even one person at that company they overtook who will even answer their own phone to listen to suggestions on how they can stage a comeback. Maybe they’re too busy hob-nobbing with movie stars. :-)

    I could write a book about the crazy mentality of some social network operators that begins and ends with the idea that they will always be reached only by people visiting their URL on the Web…and that voice communication is somehow out-moded (one only needs to look at the recent Cornell Email all-reply blunder to understand that lots of communication should *only* be verbal).

    Even when using socnet sites on the web itself, it blows my mind that I can’t make automatic VOIP calls right there and then.

  6. Nice thoughts. But, from a personal standpoint, when I think about it, I have not called friends who I am constantly interacting via Facebook or Orkut – the reason simply being that I am anyway in touch all the time.

    Also, Skype is not just me calling my friends alone or my family,etc. My Skype contacts are varied and I wouldn;’t want my employer to know all things that I broadcast to friends. So, all in all, it is better for Skype to remain wht it is.

    On the contrary, Facebook could pick a cue and build a ‘call your friend’ feature too..That could be disastrous for Skype!

  7. Brian said: “Skype doesn’t need to sell advertising, which means that it doesn’t need to infringe on users’ privacy by turning their personal information into a salable commodity for advertisers — in my mind the fundamental flaw of web-based social networks. In other words,”

    Exactly. Facebook smells funny, especially with the recent insider confession I’d love an alternative and agree that Skpye is poised to deliver a good one.

  8. Libran Lover

    Excellent post! More so, cuz this post takes a more realistic view of how strong (or rather weak!) Facebook is! I was beginning to think that reality and Facebook do not mix on Gigaom.

    • Another interesting aspect of this is that Facebook, by creating such an efficient mechanism for link sharing among friends has unintentionally created an efficient machine to distribute whatever its next serious competitor is. So whoever comes up with the next mousetrap, whatever it is, will have an easy time getting the word out if it clicks with users (i.e. just look at Farmville).

    • With one caveat — no one’s clock gets cleaned. A Skype as a status-passing network based on open formats would be a very different thing from either Twitter or Facebook.

      If you look at history, pundits always predict cleaned clocks, but in practice the clocks stay dirty. :-)

      • @Dave Winer

        I agree. I think it’d be a much different animal, especially if the spec for the document format is open (e.g. microformats), then people could build all sorts of third party apps that write into the outgoing file, and can parse incoming files from peer users for information they can understand. Lots of possibilities.

  9. Skype might be better off building a business network, not a social one. Facebook makes maybe $2/year from its users, but businesses will pay more than 50 times that, on a per-seat basis, for the telecoms/presence features that Skype already offers, plus some vPBX and other incremental features.

    Of course, Skype could pursue both simultaneously, but if resources are an issue they’re better off going for the paying customers first.

    • @Paul

      My guess is that such a service, if they build it, will naturally become a more business oriented network since so many people use Skype for work. I like the idea of providing users with simple, understandable tools, and then see what they do with them. I agree that there’s more money in business, so they’d be smart to look at how they can improve on services like conference calling, hosted PBX, higher end handsets, etc, but with 500M end users, they can make plenty of money whatever they do. Lucky position to be in.

  10. @jenkins I don’t know about the politics of the board, but it seems to me that Andresen has a duty to serve Skype’s shareholders so if they end up in competition, he’d need to bow out on those votes (or Skype could buy Ning, which is presumably looking for an exit at some point).

    If it were me, I would start by adding some simple features, along the lines of what Twitter does, since Skype is well suited to a status update stream. This would not really be a direct threat to Ning, etc, although could be bad news for Twitter. If users really like it, then do more. If users don’t really respond, that’s good to know too. But a good place to start is a simple, lightweight service that has a practical communication purpose, then extend if the response is good.

    My $0.02

    Brian McC

  11. @DaveM

    A web browser is a client, one designed for documents. A browser is not the best client for real-time communication, lots of overhead, and it’s not what it was designed to do. So if Skype is embedded everywhere, and it already is widely installed, it’s fine to use Skype for communication, browser for document oriented tasks, for example. For comm apps, it’s better to use a client designed for that purpose, and there’s no reason a client like Skype can’t interact with browsers where they are a better interface.

    Brian McC

  12. I agree, but there is one major flaw.

    Skype requires a client.

    As my online life as moved to the clouds, I no longer carry my notebook everywhere. Now, I use a PC at home, a thin client and work, and a smart phone in-between.

    I am moving toward a client-less environment. I use Skype at home, but not on my thin client or phone. That doesn’t seem very social.